Our review of Orpheus (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published September 12th, 2011, is also available.
"A legend is entitled to be beyond time and space. Interpret it as you wish."
Jean Cocteau described Orpheus as a "realistic film…a film in which I express a truth peculiar to myself." Made in 1950, it represents Cocteau at the peak of his creative powers—and formidable powers those are. Criterion offers the film as part of its Orphic Trilogy boxed set. It is, to put it bluntly, one of the best films ever made.
Facts of the Case
We all know the myth of Orpheus. He was the most famous poet in the mythic world. When his beloved wife, Eurydice, died, he traveled to the underworld to serenade the beautiful Persephone and convince her to let Eurydice go. The princess of the underworld relented and released Orpheus' wife, but admonished him not to look back during his journey back to the world. But he looked at Eurydice, and she vanished forever, leaving him to a savage death at the hands of the followers of Dionysus.
And Cocteau's retelling of the myth? In the modern day, the brilliant poet Orpheus (Jean Marais), beloved by the people but resented by the poseurs at the Poet's Café, watches the pretentious crowd swoon over his rival Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe). His friend remarks, "Orpheus, your gravest fault is knowing how to get away with going too far." But very shortly, that talent will be pushed to its limit.
Cegeste is run down by a pair of motorcyclists in quasi-fascist uniforms. His patron, a beautiful and mysterious princess (Maria Cesares), and her driver Heurtebise (Francois Perier) pull the body into their car. The Princess demands Orpheus come along as a witness. Driving through a strange landscape, and soon joined by the murderous motorcyclists, they arrive at a ruined building. Cegeste is awakened, and the Princess is revealed as his own personal "Death." She takes him into a mirror and vanishes. Orpheus falls asleep.
Returned by Heurtebise to his home and adoring wife Eurydice, Orpheus remains haunted by his memories of the experience, and by the cryptic poetry he hears coming out of the car radio. And when he sleeps, the Princess comes out of the mirror to watch over him, knowing that her own growing obsession breaks the rules. How far will she go to have her poet?
Is Orpheus a story about art? If so, it constructs a fatal circle around poetic inspiration. Orpheus only becomes a true poet when inspired by Death herself, aspiring to transcend the rule of death and achieve immortality. Cocteau paints his images in layers of silver, always focused on the tiny details of this world. Reality is elegantly mundane, like the French countryside in spring. The Other World is a blasted city, burned and shattered, with every detail visible. Characters float through scenes as if in a dream, yet always conscious of their surroundings. As the Princess tells Orpheus, "Sleeping or awake, the dreamer must accept his dreams." But for a film about "art," Orpheus is remarkably unselfconscious. There is a real story here, with little forced artifice. The performances are uniformly excellent, grounding the ethereal events of the plot in human terms. The desire for art is revealed as Desire itself.
Is Orpheus a love story? If so, it tells how love itself can transcend death. Drawn to Orpheus, the Princess, a mere functionary in some bureaucratic afterlife, will break all the rules to bring her poet to her side. And as Heurtebise lingers in the world of the living, falling in love with Eurydice, who remains devoted to Orpheus, the triangle takes on more dimensions than one can calculate, like the unbounded spaces of the Other World the characters must cross on their journey.
If all this sounds a bit gushing, I do have to admit that I have a particular fondness for this film. But as I remarked in my review of The Blood of a Poet, Cocteau is one of the most influential artists (especially in film) of the 20th century. And Orpheus is his best film (although likely Beauty and the Beast is more popular). And, for those usually afraid of "avant-garde" filmmaking (which is often pretty dreary and needlessly cryptic), Orpheus is very accessible to the average viewer. Clocking in at a well-paced 95 minutes, it wastes no time on pretentiousness. Cocteau was a firm believer that mythology was a living thing, as he says in the 1950 essay included with the DVD: "There is nothing more vulgar than works that set out to prove something. [Orpheus], naturally, avoids even the appearance of trying to prove anything." Yet, it is that lack of artifice which says everything about both art and love.
And the disc itself? The shimmering clarity of Criterion's transfer is excellent, capturing the light touch of Nicholas Hayer's cinematography, which as noted above mixes layers of light and shadow. The print shows minimal defects, and the sound mix is well balanced and clear. As with The Blood of a Poet, the film is presented in its original aspect ration of 1.33:1, so the subtitles overlap the bottom of the image. Everything is clear and easy to read however, and you can always turn the subtitles off and still follow the story.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
First, I must offer a correction: in my review of The Blood of a Poet, I implied that the three DVD's in the Orphic Trilogy set were available separately (which they are on VHS). At this time, Criterion only offers the three Cocteau films together on DVD (his other masterpiece, Beauty and the Beast is available separately in a fine edition as well). That being said, the criticism that Orpheus is presented in "bare-bones" fashion, with no extras on the disc itself (other than a bibliofilmography also included on the other discs) is really not much of a problem at all. Although it would have been nice for Criterion to include more on this particular film than a brief 1950 essay reprinted on the insert, the other two discs in the set, The Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus contain enough goodies to make up for it. In fact, Orpheus by itself is such a stunning centerpiece to the package that it has more replay value even in a bare-bones edition than the other two films (good as they are) with all their extras included.
Other than that, I have no criticisms to level against the film. It is not artsy or pretentious, yet it crackles with poetic genius. Not a frame of film is wasted.
Orpheus is Cocteau's masterpiece. It is a thoughtful and fascinating journey though love and death and art. Does anything else matter?
Although other courts may condemn the poet and his muse for breaking the rules, those petty bureaucrats have no influence here. The prosecution is dismissed with prejudice from this courtroom.
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